BOOKS AT THE MILLENNIUM : Have They a Future?

By McCARTHY, Abigail | Commonweal, November 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

BOOKS AT THE MILLENNIUM : Have They a Future?


McCARTHY, Abigail, Commonweal


Although there are many who argue cogently that the new millennium begins on January 1, 2001 rather than on January 1, 2000, their arguments are being overwhelmed by the proliferation of current millennial celebrations and observances.

One of the earliest of these, in fact, was held on October 17, 1998, by Washington's Cosmos Club members, a symposium on "The Book: Past, Present, and Future," planned as the first of a series of such millennial observances. Why study the book? One of the best reasons given is the important role books have played in achieving and detecting continuity in a culture. The symposium began with a definition of the book and continued with its history.

A book is defined in the terms of symposium speaker Bernard Knox as a "portable object recording a text that can be easily read by anyone with an elementary education and can be reproduced in identical form in multiple copies." As such, the book has been around since the first centuries of the first millennium, initially in the form of papyrus scrolls, but, by the end of the second century, in the form of papyrus pages stitched together and called a codex by the Romans. (A codex is our form of the book.)

The great literatures of Greece and Rome were recorded and circulated on papyrus scrolls. According to Knox, the famous library at Alexandria had eight scrolls of the poems of Sappho of Lesbos, scrolls of the Homeric poems, and 250 of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. As evidence that the Athenian society took books and reading for granted, Knox quotes Aristophanes who had the chorus assure the audience of one of his comedies: "Everyone is holding his little book so he can follow the subtle allusions." He notes that Martial speaks of the bookshops of Rome and that Augustus founded libraries to hold the "enormous literary and philosophical heritage of Greco-Roman civilization."

Papyrus is perishable and much of this literature was lost as centuries went by and ancient literature was transferred to parchment and vellum, more durable but much more expensive material and as such available only to an elite. Because of this and the barbarian invasions, only a selection of these classics survived by the time of the Renaissance. But that selection is the foundation of the literature known to us in the West today.

Although the second speaker at the symposium, Soren Edgren, University of Stockholm Sinologist, described an East Asian book culture that produced paper and printing several centuries before they were known in the West, his information is but a side issue when considering the continuity of our own culture. The chief connection is the emergence of paper in China and its arrival in the West via the high Arabic culture of southern Spain. As Knox had pointed out, paper-as the material for the new invention of the printing press-added to portability and legibility an affordability that made books available to a wide audience undreamed of in earlier centuries.

No matter what their affordability, however, possessing books depended on their distribution. Symposium speaker Calhoun Winton pointed out that distribution was a real problem for our early settlers, some of whom, according to a seventeenth-century Maryland clergyman, were "addicted to reading." In earliest colonial times, settlers brought books in their luggage, ordered them from elsewhere, or were sent them by persons or organizations in the Old World. Obviously they valued them. Winton told the charming story of a minor planter, Robert Cole, who, before he returned to England on family business, left a will and inventory of his possessions for the benefit of his seven children, should he not survive. …

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